Update April 1st: Minnesota Somali autism report out today, here.
It seems that the New York Times is increasingly publishing stories that are of interest to us. Take for instance the information Judy posted on diversity in schools here last Saturday, and then there is the story I posted on about the Iranian refugees in Iraq, here. Now, I’ve found a lengthy discussion about the high levels of autism found among Somali children in Minneapolis, a subject we have written about previously in our ‘health issues’ category.
Autism is terrifying the community of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, and some pediatricians and educators have joined parents in raising the alarm. But public health experts say it is hard to tell whether the apparent surge of cases is an actual outbreak, with a cause that can be addressed, or just a statistical fluke.
In an effort to find out, the Minnesota Department of Health is conducting an epidemiological survey in consultation with the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This kind of conundrum, experts say, arises whenever there is a cluster of noncontagious illnesses.
Experts do not know what causes autism so its hard to pin down why this particular population should be susceptible, but note Stockholm Somalis are having the same problem.
Since the cause of autism is unknown, the authorities in Minnesota say it is hard to know even what to investigate.
“There are obviously some real concerns here, but we don’t want to make a cursory judgment,” said Buddy Ferguson, a health department spokesman. Even counting autism cases is difficult because the diagnoses are first made by the schools, not doctors, and population estimates for Somalis vary widely. Results are expected late this month.
Even if the department confirms that a cluster exists, it will not answer the question why. Still, Dr. Thun said a possible focus in one ethnic group “increases my sense that investigating it is essential.” The next step, he added, would be to look at Somalis in other cities.
A small recent study of refugees in schools in Stockholm found that Somalis were in classes for autistic children at three times the normal rate.
I think one problem with their analysis is that authorities have no clue what the Somali population is, it could be much higher than they are guessing and thus the rate of autism would be closer to normal for the population.
Somalis began arriving in Minneapolis in 1993, driven out by civil war; now their population in Minnesota is estimated at 30,000 to 60,000. The city is welcoming and social benefits are generous, but many live a life apart as conservative Muslims, the women in head scarves and long dresses.
Somalis arrived in smaller numbers before 1993 (see numbers here). We resettled over 80,000 alone and they have been having large families for 25 years. The population in Minnesota could be much much larger than 30,000-60,000. So it seems to me that the first step is to make sure exactly what the size of the population is.
What causes it, no one really knows.
Speculation is rampant about possible causes: living conditions in Somalia or in refugee camps in Kenya; traditional medicines; intermarriage; genetic predisposition; vitamin D deficiencies due to a lack of sunlight; and, of course, vaccines.
But each theory has weaknesses.
Since speculation is rampant and since there is some suspicion of a genetic link, I’m guessing Islamic sanctioned polygamy should be factored in. One man with some defective gene producing children with many wives could very quickly affect a whole population. There is polygamy in the US Somali population.
Of course the anti-vaccine folks are lobbying Somalis to cut out vaccines.
Antivaccine activists are campaigning among them, which worries public health officials, especially because some families go back and forth to Somalia, where measles is still a significant cause of childhood death, according to Unicef.
I found this statement curious. Somalia is a country undergoing extreme violence, we are told, and that is why so many Somalis have moved to the West. Why then are there families going “back and forth to Somalia?” Makes me wonder if they are taking their girls to visit the “doctor.” And, then of course, that begs the question, if they can travel back and forth safely, why are they here and not back in Africa helping to improve their country.